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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overture Rienzi (1839-1840) [11:56]
Overture The Flying Dutchman (1841) [10:28]
Overture Tannhäuser (1843-1845) [14:53]
Prelude Lohengrin (1846-1848) [9:40]
Prelude to Act 3 Lohengrin (1846-1848) [3:34]
Prelude to Act 3 The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1861-1867) [6:57]
Prelude Parsifal (1877-1882) [13:26]
Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden/Hans Rosbaud
rec. SWF Musikstudio Baden-Baden, Germany; 27 December 1955 (The Flying Dutchman), 28 December 1955 (Rienzi), 11 March 1957 (Prelude Lohengrin and Prelude to Act 3 Mastersingers), 25 October 1957 (Prelude Parsifal), 6 February 1959 (Tannhäuser) and 26 June 1959 (Prelude to Act 3 Lohengrin)
Digitally remastered from the original tapes
SWR MUSIC SWR19036CD [72:01]

I first became acquainted with Hans Rosbaud's name in the 1960s, when his LP recording of Bruckner's seventh symphony with the South-west German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Turnabout TV 34083 S) was a regular critics' recommendation. Its undoubted qualities keep it in the catalogue in various CD incarnations to this day.

In general, however, Rosbaud has now been pretty much forgotten for—even as new technical developments such as the LP format and high fidelity sound were offering his more eager contemporaries the chance to set down their interpretations for posterity—he recorded comparatively little in the studio. There were several reasons. In the first place, he preferred conducting contemporary scores, for many of which there was no prospect of making a commercially viable recording. Secondly, after 1948, when his radical choices of repertoire had cost him his position at the head of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, he was attracted by the greater artistic independence offered by working primarily with radio orchestras. Until the recent fashion for unearthing long-forgotten broadcasts, that has proved to be a comparatively ephemeral medium. Unfortunately, too, Rosbaud's death in 1962 occurred just as post-war consumerism really took off and the recording companies initiated a significant programme of re-taping much of the basic repertoire. Thus, he did not experience the 1960s Indian summer enjoyed by such contemporaries such as George Szell (d. 1970) and Otto Klemperer (d. 1973).

Among a small band of devotees, however, Rosbaud's name was and remains revered. My colleague John Quinn's review of another of the conductor's radio orchestra recordings alerted me to Francis Poulenc's 1954 observation that "music buffs believe that the greatest living conductor is Toscanini; musicians know that it is Hans Rosbaud”. Meanwhile, just a few months ago, MusicWeb's Jonathan Woolf opined without qualification that "Rosbaud is always worth hearing". It appears that the SWR Classic label thinks so too for, in unearthing and remastering these Wagner recordings from the later 1950s, its packaging boldly—and not, I hope, simply mistakenly in translation—makes the leap from objective fact to subjective value-judgment in describing them not merely as historical but as historic.

It is certainly true that these could not be anything other than historical recordings. While expertly engineered balances ensure that orchestral detail is always clearly heard—and even though the CD's booklet cover proudly boasts Original SWR tapes remastered—the overall sound quality is somewhat dull. Markedly bass-heavy, it lacks resonance in much the same way as did recordings originating from Toscanini's notoriously dry Studio 8-H. As a result, the orchestra can occasionally seem to be lacking in substance. Moreover, that absence of sonic sparkle sometimes amounts to a significant loss in itself, with the opening Rienzi overture, for one, deprived of much of its requisite glittering pomp. At a time when the newly-launched—but distinctly low-fi—transistor radio may have been the most up-to-date model in many homes, I wonder whether German radio stations considered state-of-the-art recording quality an unnecessary luxury. It would be interesting to learn more about the provenance of these Rosbaud tapes and about the way in which contemporary radio orchestras worked—and were recorded—but the otherwise usefully informative booklet is silent on the matter.

We are left, then, with the performances themselves, tracked, interestingly, in order of their composition and thus telling us something about Wagner's music itself, as well as the conductor, as we listen to the disc from beginning to end. The Rienzi overture opens with particular weight and drama and its climax too is darker-hued and less triumphalist than in many other accounts. In between, Rosbaud creates a notably less episodic structure than we usually hear, so that the piece is particularly musically satisfying overall. While the aforementioned lack of sonic resonance means that the opening storm of the Der fliegende Holländer overture may not pin you to your seat, the SWF orchestra's expert playing comes well to the fore in the more delicate, contemplative sections that follow. All these recordings were made without a live audience, so Rosbaud and his players had no need to play to the gallery. This is therefore another serious, thoughtful account of a piece that is often tossed off, one suspects, without a great deal of thought. By the time we reach the third track, the Tannhäuser overture, the listener's ears have become used to both the sound and the conductor's characteristically deliberate approach. Once again, Rosbaud's inclination to hold the piece's livelier sections on a tight rein not only produces a more satisfying overall interpretation but sometimes offers unexpected musical perspectives. Thus, just as the Rienzi overture recording had sometimes brought Weber to my mind, this Tannhäuser occasionally conjured up more than a hint of Mendelssohn.

As might be expected, the conductor's seriously thoughtful way with these works suits particularly well both the Lohengrin and Parsifal opening preludes and the introduction to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Each transports the listener to sound worlds far removed from Weber and Mendelssohn—or even from Rienzi and the Dutchman. Rosbaud's expert control of orchestral balance and dynamics and his innate understanding of Wagner's musical idiom delivers exquisitely crafted and utterly satisfying performances. The orchestra plays its collective heart out for him.

As will be apparent by now, these are accounts that, in spite of less than ideal—though invariably clear and detailed—sound, are distinctive and expertly executed. Is that enough, though, to justify their release in a competitive market full of many other highly accomplished recordings?

Oddly enough, far from concurring with the CD cover boast that these are "historic" recordings, Hartmut Lück's booklet notes seem to offer a rather half-hearted commendation. Having detailed at some length Rosbaud's credentials as a specialist in modern scores, he merely concludes that "Therefore, it is only fair to release other—so far unpublished—recordings of Rosbaud, the specialist on new music. To begin with, the preludes to Richard Wagner's operas seem to be most suitable".

"It is only fair..."? "...seem to be..."? Perhaps, once again, there is some sort of translation issue going on here and maybe the original German words convey a more positive tone. I certainly hope so. Unfortunately, my own lack of familiarity with other Rosbaud recordings means that I cannot necessarily second Jonathan Woolf's assertion that he is a conductor who "is always worth hearing". I can, nonetheless, certainly vouch for the fact that this particular disc is very well worth a listen.

Rob Maynard

 




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